As the Delta variant surges throughout the state and mask mandates are back in place in Baltimore City, area restaurants are bracing their businesses once again. In the spring, hopes were high as the virus waned, but now restaurants are back to reeling.
Earlier this month, True Chesapeake Oyster Co. in Whitehall Mill became the first restaurant in the city to require proof of vaccination. To prove vax status, diners can show a physical copy of their card, a photograph of the card, or register through the myirmobile.com app.
“We debated for a couple of weeks,” says executive chef/partner Zack Mills. “At the end of the day, we kept going back to the fact that we are just trying to make our restaurant safer. Our thought process throughout these past 18 months is that we’ve always put the health and safety of our staff and the guests above revenue. We figured, why stop now? We required all of our staff to get vaccinated, so the next step was to require our patrons to get vaccinated, too.”
Now, other restaurants are considering what to do, from Silver Queen Café in Lauraville—which has taken a cue from True Chesapeake and now asks for proof of vaccination—to Hersh’s in Riverside, whose co-owner Josh Hershkovitz says that he and his team are leaning toward making a vaccine mandatory.
“We are debating daily,” says Hershkovitz, who closed his restaurant for indoor dining for 14 months beginning March of 2020. “And I’m on the verge of going that way. We are just looking to see who else is doing it, so we’re not the only ones. Everyone is like, ‘Good luck, you’re going to lose your staff.’ Well, aren’t you concerned that you might potentially have a deadly virus you’re carrying and working in a very sensitive environment? I don’t understand why that’s not occurring to people.”
Conversely, at Pikesville’s Citron in Baltimore County—where there currently aren’t mask mandates in place—husband-and-wife owners Charles and Susan Levine say they are adhering to best practices, but that they have no plans to require proof of vaccination.
“The city is different from the county,” Susan says, citing geographical location and crowd sizes. “Of course, we support vaccinations and we care about the safety of our staff, our guests, and our own health, but there are people who have legitimate reasons for not getting it, and we don’t begrudge them. We’re following the CDC and the Maryland Department of Health guidelines and adjusting constantly, whatever the winds bring.”
While Hershkovitz is happy about the mask mandate in the city, he says, it feels “a little half-assed just to have people wear masks when they walk in the door. As much as we want to enforce it, it’s like ‘Excuse me, there’s nothing on your table right now, can you pull your mask back up?’ It’s dubious and it’s still leaving our staff exposed. It’s why we never opened inside most of last year, because no matter how much the guest is protected from our staff, our duty is to protect our staff.”
Staffing shortages continue to be an issue everywhere, as some people have left hospitality entirely, and others are still receiving unemployment.
Mills says that “80 percent” of the interviews at True Chesapeake have been no-shows, despite enticements like higher wages and even bonuses for those who stay for six months.
“We’ve had to trim the amount of food on the menu, though we still have something for everyone,” Mills says, “and we’re only operating five services, dropping brunch for the next two weeks.”
The Levines have also had to curtail their hours and days of operation at Citron, which is currently open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. But an unforeseen upside, they say, is the impact that the new hours have had on employee retention.
“We have a lot of different balls in the air,” Susan says of the restaurant’s indoor and outdoor dining, as well as private event spaces. “But opening at 4 p.m. five days a week has allowed us to retain a good amount of front and back-of-house people. They like having more flexibility, they have Mondays and Tuesdays off. Prior to the pandemic we were open for Sunday brunch. Now it’s a tighter ship, and everybody is happier.”
As for the cooler climes that brought a flurry of innovations last year—including heated tents, robust to-go menus, and state-of-the art HVAC and filtration systems circulating in dining rooms (including Citron’s)—Mills is staying optimistic. Last year, True Chesapeake closed for three-and-half months because “there was literally no business,” he says. “We don’t plan on doing that ever again. Hopefully, with the plans we’ve made, people will feel comfortable coming out.”
Hershkovitz says that, at some point, they will likely shut down for indoor service again and go back to their pivot model, which was more carryout-friendly with larger pizzas and Italian subs.
For Citron’s part, the owners’ next project is to install thermostat-controlled heat on one of their enclosed terraces in preparation for winter. “If this is the way it’s going to be, we will just keep attacking it,” Charles says of the constant pivoting. “But tonight for dinner, we have to make sure that everyone is happy. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”
Mills shares the same passion for hospitality, which is what has kept many in the industry going despite the challenging times.
“The restaurant is a struggle,” he says. “There are a million fires to put out, but we are blessed to be here. We are still doing what we love and that’s really all that matters.”